Local mountaineers summit highest peak in North America

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CANMORE – Battling strong winds, unrelenting snow and freezing temperatures, a trio of Canmore’s finest mountaineers beat the odds and reached the summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America, on June 23.

Towering 20,310 feet (6,190 meters) above sea level, Jean-Francois Dupras, Patrick Maguire and Christopher Peppler spent a total of 18 days attached by a rope slowly making their way to the top of one of the world’s most inhospitable places.

“It seems like a dream,” said Dupras, reflecting on the moment the three men reached the summit.

“When we got to the top we all hugged each other and just started crying.”

The tears of joy were 15-years in the making for the 39-year old Quebec native who has battled bouts of depression throughout his life.

“I wasn’t just doing it for myself, but for my family, my friends and for those who are struggling with their mental health.”

Prior to beginning their ascent on June 9, Dupras launched a campaign to raise awareness about mental health and collect donations for the Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region.

“Whatever you are going through in life, whatever challenge it is, you can always push through it,” said Dupras, who has raised nearly $13,000 to date.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re going through, if it’s difficult there’s always sunshine after the storm.”

That message might sound cliché, but it couldn’t be more accurate, given the men had to endure -80 C temperatures, pounding wind and whiteout conditions in order to reach the summit 15 days after embarking.

Prior to departure date, the group spent months preparing for the trip before flying to the base of the mountain located in south-central Alaska.

One of their biggest decisions before they set out was deciding whether or not to hire a guide to take them to the top, given that only about 30 per cent of groups without one are successful.

After weighing their options, the group decided to forgo a guide and instead rely on markers along the way and use GPS coordinates to help them reach the top.

Completely self supported, each person also had to carry 150 pounds of food and gear with them using a backpack and sled they towed behind them.

After getting dropped off at the tiny airstrip located 7,200 feet above sea level, the trio briefly stopped to get their bearings before putting on their snowshoes and setting off to find their first camp for the night.

“It was really warm, but we still had to be fully covered up all the way up otherwise you’d burn,” recalled Dupras, about their first day on the mountain.

The first part of their route involved a 700-foot descent from the base camp before they turned north and began their ascent to their first camp, which was 7,800-feet above sea level.

The following day they continued ascending, however in true Denali fashion, a blizzard quickly over took the group forcing them to dig out a spot to set up their tent later that day.

“We didn’t bring a thermometer, but they said with the wind chill and 70 mile an hour winds it was probably around -70 C or -80 C,” said Peppler,

On top of this the snow was relentless burying their tent under three feet of snow that night.

After digging out the next morning, Dupras strapped on his bag and attached himself to his sled before breaking trail for the group the next day.

“For me it was probably one of the hardest days. I broke trail for quite a while, but we had knee-deep snow, with a sledge, going up hill, in a blizzard, you can’t see what’s ahead, so when we got to camp I was exhausted, I couldn’t move.”

Compounding matters, several times throughout the 18-day trip, the group struggled to find the markers set up along the trail making it difficult to figure out where they were going.

“It’s like looking at the inside of a ping pong ball,” said Peppler. “You turn right and you think you’re going in a straight line, but you’re not.”

Fortunately the trio could rely on their GPS, which helped them stay on track.

“We had a basic idea of where camps were with our GPS and then we just kind of eye-balled it,” said Peppler, explaining the markers were three foot tall bamboo poles with tape on them.

“We’d go sometimes a kilometre and not see them so you just kind of point yourself either up hill or downhill and figure it out from there.”

Along the way the trio said they could sometimes hear other groups in the distance, which helped assure them they were on the right track and usually meant a trail had already been set.

One of the most challenging parts during the 18-day trek was on day five when they got stuck at 14,000 feet for five days because of bad weather.

“We were getting weather intelligence from somebody who was a meteorologist in Denver, so he was sending us updates and everyday the weather would get pushed back a day,” explained Peppler.

While it might seem like a lot of downtime, the trio kept busy shovelling out their tent, boiling snow for water and preparing food.

“It’s so much work to live up there,” said Peppler, adding they had enough food to be on the mountain for 24 days, so running out of food wasn’t a concern.

After spending five days cooped up in their tents, their weather contact in Denver said they should try and push to get to 17,000 feet to get acclimatized because a weather window appeared to be on its way.

The National Park Service on the other hand was warning climbers to stay put because of treacherous conditions.

“Every time we listened to the mountain weather from the National Park Service it was doom and gloom,” said Peppler.

Weighing their options, they decided to take a chance and as luck would have it, the sky opened up the next da,y so the three men hiked to 17,000 feet to get acclimatized before coming back down to their tents later that day.

“That day was perfect,” recalled Dupras. “It was probably one of the best days we had on the mountain.”

The following morning the trio wasn’t so lucky, waking up to blizzard like conditions and waist deep snow.

Undeterred, the group spent nearly an hour getting out of camp that day, but knew they had to get back to 17,000 feet, so they would be in a position to reach the summit the next day.

“The first day to get to 17,000 feet it took us five hours round trip. The day we left we had waist deep snow, so it took us eight or nine hours to get to the top of the headwall which is 16,500 feet,” explained Dupras.

Exhausted from the day, the men dug in and set up camp on the ridge for the night before making their final ascent to the summit the next day, which as it would turn out would be one of the nicest days of the trip.

“Pat looked out of the tent and it was gleaming blue skies and no wind,” recalled Peppler, on the morning of their final ascent.

Encouraged by the weather, the trio pushed through the final 3,000 feet to reach the summit that afternoon before returning to their tent at 16,500 feet, 15 hours later.

“Right before we got to the summit I turned around and took a picture of the guys on the ridge and it was kind of at that point that we knew we got it,” said Peppler, whose face was still sunburnt from the adventure.

“There’s not really any words to really describe what it feels like,” added Maguire.

For all three men reaching the summit was an emotional moment.

“I think we were all glad we were wearing sunglasses,” joked Peppler.

“I had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro before, but I was pretty confident I would be able to do that, but I think all of us went into this knowing that there was an exceptionally good chance that we wouldn’t do it because it’s not something you do as a day trip.”

For the next three days the trio carefully made their way down the mountain, picking up their sleds at 14,000 feet before returning to the base camp on June 26.

“It was amazing,” said Dupras, reflecting on his accomplishment.

For the 39-year-old it was the first of seven mountains he plans to summit over the next few years with plans to hike Aconcagua in Argentina next January.

He said he hopes to summit the seven tallest mountains on each continent by the time he’s done, and like mental health, he said, there’s no challenge that is too great to overcome.

“It’s really about taking one step at a time.”

For more information about his cause or to donate to the Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region visit: www.jean-francoisdupras.com.

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Paul Clarke

Paul Clarke has spent the past four years working as a community news reporter in Jasper, Banff and Canmore. Prior to moving to the Rockies he cut his teeth as a breaking news reporter for the Toronto Star and has since won several community newspaper awards.